The 2022 midterms are right around the corner, and the drumbeat is already starting. As the debate begins to heat up, and as the arguments begin to spin into the wildly hyperbolic, the gradual disappearance of any definitive means to judge the underlying value of what is being said is going to create a real risk which well may lead to disaster.
In days gone by, before cable news and the internet, and except for what could be addressed in private mailings, the dissemination of political argument was filtered exclusively the private media – the public airwaves and the printed word. On the print side, the universal standard of excellence was long considered to be the New York Times with its motto, established in 1896 by its then Adolph Ochs, as “All the news that’s fit to print,” It prided itself as being “the paper of record,” and was commonly recognized throughout the world as “the” standard of print journalism. Her articles were reprinted throughout the world with a citation to the New York paper being all the attribution necessary for credibility. Other papers trusted and sought to emulate the Grey Lady, and her insistence on the absolute truth as the hallmark of every word in the news pages. Recognizing the value of a reputation for truth, they were careful in their own reportage. There was a clear demarcation between the standards demanded of by the main-stream media and the obvious gossip found in the yellow journalism of the tabloids. We read our main-stream papers with the reasonable assurance that if it appeared in the news sections of a responsible daily, it was probably true.
For a time, television was recognized as the source for highlights on the daily news with the print media retaining its credentials as the source for details. Television matured to offer the steady, calming presence of the likes of Huntly and Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, and others, during times when even a word out of place would bring immediate corrective action and a single mistake could ruin a career, lest the objective truth of the network’s news operation be compromised by even the slightest nuance of error.
Cable news and the internet have changed all of this. Print journalism has all but vanished as an arbiter of the truth, with daily papers reduced to little more than advertising circulars, and weekly magazines diverted to entertainment reviews. Cable news, with its 24-hour continuous news cycle, has replaced the print media as the sole source for many of us. Print circulation of the New York Times, for example, was down to 374 thousand in 2020; Tucker Carlson’s viewership on one given night reached 4.33 million.
Criticism once reserved to a newspaper’s opinion expressed editorially now spills over to the news side, with critics freely castigating news articles that appear to present a candidate in a poor light. The relentless attacks on the press has taken its toll. Although no actual reason has ever been offered to distrust the responsible press – as opposed to the tabloids – the overall reputation of “the lame stream media” has suffered.
The typical cable news story is given 90 seconds or so to cover on any given show. Partisan networks are the order of the day, with Fox News to the right and MSNBC to the left. Truth has become a potentially relative term, not an absolute, with defenders seeing nothing wrong with presenting conflicting statements of fact. When Chuck Todd challenged Kellyanne Conway to explain one of Trumps bald face lies, she blithely replied that the circumstance was merely some “alternative facts” to be evaluated by the listener.
What has become even worse is the phenomena of the internet, and the seductive influence of the social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. If released by a celebrity or nationally recognized source, a blatant lie started on Facebook or Twitter can be republished and shared millions of times in minutes., with no machinery for corrections or explanations. Donald Trump, for example, is said to have over 25 million followers on Twitter, each receiving Trump’s tweets within seconds of release.
This brings us today to the incomprehensible enigma of what many on the right claim as “the greatest crime of the century” and what the left maintain is “nothing but a great lie” – the claim that Trump was the actual winner of the 2020 election. No part of this claim has withstood the detailed examination given to it thus far, which includes thousands of investigative stories in the press, hundreds of hours of television interviews and comment, multiple vote and ballot recounts, the official releases of every election official involved in every one of the affected states, and in the judicial opinions of over 60 different courts in as many federal and state jurisdictions.
Notwithstanding this overwhelming barrage of counter circumstances, the Trump supporters cannot be dislodged from their stance that Trump was the victim of a massive conspiracy, and their insistence that all Republican officeholders stand behind Trump in this assertion. This intractable position has affected almost every member of Congress and will undoubtedly play a large role in the coming election campaigns.
The danger here is not from the individual who is keeping up. We can sort out the machinations and keep track of the pea is as the walnut shells are maneuvered about. The risk is to the ordinary voter who comes to the table late – who is not paying attention now, and who will not be paying attention until the election year is well upon us. Perhaps this will be around primary time in May, but more likely it will be in the late summer or fall, when the campaigns begin in earnest to gear up for the final run to November’s election day.
This risk is this: By next year, the parties and entities now undertaking the task of responding to the outrageous charges being made today will have grown weary of the exercise. By mid-2022, they may not be defending the truth with the same vigor and may well leave some of these egregious allegations unrebutted. Any newcomer to the scene, without a reliable standard for the measurement of truth or identification of fiction, and seeing only a lukewarm response from the adversaries, may be dissuaded onto the wrong course. The result, if this happens and is carried to any logical conclusion, would be chaos.
And you thought once Trump left office it would be over.